Useful Notes: Hong Kong
Formerly a British trading colony, now a part of the People's Republic of China since its handover in 1997. The city is highly notable for its film industry, especially in the martial arts area; giving us Bruce Lee, Chow Yun-fat, Donnie Yen, and Jackie Chan, among many others. For example, the film The Departed is directly inspired by the Infernal Affairs trilogy. Heroic Bloodshed films (especially those made by John Woo) also heavily influenced worldwide action cinema. In non-Hong Kong fiction, the place features in the James Bond films The Man with the Golden Gun and Tomorrow Never Diesnote , the novel of The Bourne Supremacy and quite a few other works. A notable area of the city was the Kowloon Walled City, which can be described as an anarchic city. The City was technically under Chinese control (in 1898, the UK took over everything south of the Sham Chun River—forming the New Territories—with the exception of the City), but being in the middle of British land made it rather difficult for the Chinese to govern, so they simple did not bother and left the City to its own devices. Even in the colonial days, it became notorious as a den of lawlessness, with brothels, Opium Dens, unlicensed doctors (read "back alley abortionists"), and bad dentists (as in seriously unhygenic). Violent crime, on the other hand, was surprisingly low as the Triads effectively took over the City to be their base of operations and they did not take kindly to hooliganism on their front porch. Eventually the PRC and Britain decided they'd had enough and demolished the whole rotten place in 1993. The site is now a nice public park, but if you want to see the Walled City in all its hideousness, catch the movie Bloodsport starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. At its height, the City was the most densely populated area on Earth. The city is also quite well-known as the shopping destination for Southeast Asian tourists, sharing the spot with Singapore. This is due to the variety of goods available, from the most high-end electronic goods to the cheapest Chinese knockoff t-shirt. The big stores selling brand-name goods usually hold sales during holiday seasons to capitalize on this, slashing prices down up to 50%. Also notable is its immigrant population. There are many Filipina and Indonesian maids working in the city, and they all gather at Victoria park on Sundays. There are cases of abuse by Chinese employers, but they are generally taken care of quickly since the government has laws that provide for their general well-being while they are employed in the country, and there is a civil body set up by former immigrants who managed to make a living there. The Indian and Pakistani population is also quite significant, and it is possible to find an entire department store filled entirely by Indian workers selling goods that cater to the Indian community. Other useful points: The Special Autonomous Region or SAR (as it is now called) is broadly divided as follows:
- Hong Kong Island (Hong Kong Side): Home of towering postmodern glass skyscrapers around which black-eared kites soar as if auditioning for an Eagle Star commercial. Also present are double-decker trams, the Happy Valley racecourse and a number of parks. One such park is Ocean Park, which is by the smallish town of Aberdeen, home of the Jumbo Floating Restaurant. Ocean Park includes a theme park, aviary, aquarium (with sharks!), seal and dolphin shows and pandas (which, in typical panda fashion, don't actually do much). The crowded streets, trams, eye-catching skyscrapers and the old prison/courthouse building and legislative Council building are popular backdrops for action movies and beat-em-up computer games: one of the Street Fighter series features the characters holding up a tram as they fight, some episodes of Tekken have the China Bank tower clearly visible in the background.
- For lively scenes, there are such districts as Lan Kwai Fong, a couple of streets of wall-to-wall bars and the place to see in the (calendar) New Year; or Wan Chai, the World of Suzie Wong, where there are "girlie bars" full of Filipina and Thai "escorts". (Suzie herself was a Chinese hooker back in the '50s when Wanchai was still the waterfront. Reclamation has since pushed the seafront back). The oldest girlie bar in Wan Chai is probably the Bottoms Up Club, whose sign proudly notes that it was featured in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun. There are ordinary bars and restaurants in Wanchai too.
- The Kowloon Peninsula (Kowloon Side), a short trip across the Victoria Harbour (actually a strait separating Hong Kong Side from the mainland). The crossing can be made by the Star Ferry, the Mass Transit Railway, or one of three road tunnels. The harbour itself is one of the busiest areas of water in the world, but is narrowing as more and more land is reclaimed. (The wreck of the Queen Elizabeth was never really a secret service base and has long since been removed, in case any Bond fans were wondering.) Kowloon is home to many street markets, often open long after dark, hence their nickname "night markets". The most famous one is the one at Temple Street. There are also hotels, residential neighbourhoods and declining industrial areas, as well as a seriously huge container port. Also the terminus of the Kowloon-Canton Railway, and home to the former Kai-tak Airport, where planes flew above densely-populated residential area on daily basis.
- Technically the container port belongs to the New Territories, but it is separated from the rest by hills, while only a plain (city now) away from the Kowloon Peninsular.
- The New Territories: These are the areas north of Kowloon which the British leased from China for 99 years. The lease ran out in 1997, at which point it would not have been practical to hang on to Hong Kong and Kowloon, so the Chinese got the whole lot back. This is a marked contrast to the Iron Lady's attitude to British Sovereignty elsewhere, hence the famous rhyming couplet: "You fought a war in the Falklands, in that you were so strong. On the other hand, how kind of you to give away Hong Kong". The New Territories include the various New Towns built to relieve urban congestion downtown. They also include much of the "wild" part of the SAR, infested with: poisonous snakes, pythons, harmless snakes, huge but harmless spiders, semi-wild cattle and water buffalo, semi-wild monkeys and wild boar, which allow for "wilderness" scenes even in such a small and urbanized country. Also present are many scattered villages, some still retaining old-fashioned tribal features such as village walls and most looking surprisingly poor.
- The Outlying Islands. A cluster of various islands of various sizes. The largest is Lantau. It is home to various beaches, a number of small towns, Hong Kong's small Disney theme-park and a giant statue of the Buddha. There are a number of monasteries, mostly Chinese or Tibetan Buddhist, but one Trappist (you don't hear a lot from them for obvious reasons). The famous Shaolin monks have a Kung Fu school but no monastery to current knowledge. Off the coasts of this island, one may see the Chinese White Dolphin, a species that has almost no skin pigmentation as an adult and as a result always looks white or pink. They are lively and will jump high, so tourists enjoy watching them. Also home of the Hong Kong International Airport.
- Urban Environment: As the areas of Hong Kong are small and the hills make parts unsuitable for building, most people live in tower blocks. Corridors are tiled and some individual flats have steel security gates (the new private residential buildings have none, unless you install one yourself), as a result coming home to a Hong Kong flat is like the opening sequence of Porridge: echoing footfalls, jingling keys and clanging metal bars. Smaller villages have little three-storey buildings which are a lot nicer. The juxtaposition of rich and poor is amazing: a multi-million-dollar mansion may be just up the road from a huddle of corrugated iron squatter huts that look as if they are held together with snot and toothpaste. The Peninsular Hotel, the poshest place in town (James Bond slept there in Die Another Day, almost certainly with someone else) is literally just across the road from Chunking Mansions, Kowloon's most notorious slum. Some of the older residential buildings have shacks built on their roofs which are inhabited by poorer families. Due to the lack of urban planning in the earlier days, a lot of juxtapositions like these tend to happen. For example, a cramped street in Yau Ma Tei has a Jockey Club betting station, a Hong Kong style cafe, a lightning shop and a coffin shop right next to each other, all under very old, 7-8 storey residential buildings. On Temple Street, while one section does sell Buddhist religions records and it is famous for palm-readers and fortune tellers, a significant part of it also sells sex toys. Right in front of a public library, which in turn is next to the death certificate registration center, and there's a brothel quite nearby too.
- Natural environment: The climate is hot and humid most of the year, but not hot and humid enough for a full-on rainforest. The result is a sort of half-hearted jungle about twenty to forty feet high (10 meters or so) with creepers, thorns spikes and sharp-edged leaves: it is a nightmare to push through if you get off the many hiking trails. Local wildlife includes cobras and kraits, Burmese pythons, pangolins, macaques, water buffalo, boars, various kinds of deer, fifteen species of bat, mongooses and sundry lizards, rats. The Mai Po marshes are a famous reserve for migratory water birds. There was even a (small) crocodile once. They brought in an Australian crocodile hunter (not that one) and it's now in the aforementioned Mai Po Wetlands park.
- Transport: As most people live in tower blocks and there are few parking places, many families have no cars so public transport is very important. It includes the trams on Hong Kong side, a tram-train light rail system called the LRT in parts of the New Territories, and a huge number of double-decker buses and minibuses plying their trade all over the SAR. The MTR is an underground rail network whose speed, cleanliness and reliability would shame the London Tube, the New York Subway or Le Métropolitain. The company recently took over the Kowloon-Canton Railway and so now handles the above-ground trains also. Rickshaws are a thing of the past now: the last few in town stand forlorn by the Star Ferry pier, for sale to anyone who wants one as a curiosity. Indeed, transportation is very convenient in general - there are a lot of buses and light buses (coming in green and red varieties - the former has fixed stops and the latter doesn't).
- Culture: A lot of people still hold a variety of traditional Chinese religious and mystical beliefs loosely linked to Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, so one may regularly see people burning incense, paper effigies of luxury goods and bundles of "Hell Money" for their departed relatives, shrines to various local gods are often in evidence (Kuan Yin, goddess of mercy and Kuan-Ti god of war and upholder of justice are popular, so is the sea goddess A-Ma in fishing villages). Many people worry about the Feng Shui (pronounced "Fung Shoy", not "Fung Shway", by the way; Hong Kong is one of the two places in the world—Macau being the other—where Cantonese is the official language) of their buildings etc. Politically, Hong Kong is often characterized as being relatively classical liberal or libertarian (i.e. small and non-interventionist government), and this is true for the international sectors of the economy. The domestic economy, however, is quite heavily cartelized by a small number of well-connected government-favored corporations (see Joe Studwell's Asian Godfathers for more), thus making Hong Kong a mixed economy with significant levels of mercantilist/corporatist statism. Rallies and demonstrations are pretty rare nowadays, riots rarer still. Most people speak Guongdungwa (Cantonese), although more and more are learning the official Putonghua (Mandarin), including the entire younger generation. You can generally get by in English, anyhow, but don't expect to hear clearly through the accent and the infamously atrocious grammar.
- Crime: There is a fair deal of drug abuse and protection racketeering overseen by the famous Triads (called Tongs in some Western fiction) such as the Wo Group and the 14K society. Most of these groups are in uneasy truce with each other most of the time, so if you happen to see large posses of young men with knives squaring off in the street, look around for the cameras: it's more likely to be a movie scene than a real gang war. Mostly the Triads won't stand for physical harm coming to foreign tourists as it's bad for business, so if you visit Hong Kong you won't get mugged. You probably will get scandalously overcharged, but that's another story. Hong Kong is also known for its stringent gun control, and there hasn't been a civilian shooting for many years. Any sort of firearm releasing kinetic energy of over 2 Joules are banned, and troops of armed cops are known to storm citizen residences when they have evidence of modified/smuggled guns. There is a local lottery - Mark Six. Gambling is also legal in a limited sense. The Jockey Club is in charge of the famous horse races, the Mark Six and is the only legal source for football gambling. Consequently, it is very rich, and can afford to run numerous charities and medical clinics.
- Military: Before Hong Kong was returned to China, the citizens could join the UK forces. However, Hong Kong citizens cannot join the People's Liberation Army because there aren't laws that deal with recruitment. There have been talk in recent years about letting Hong Kong citizens join, as around 2.5% of the population has expressed interest in joining. However, until the lawmakers of Hong Kong amends the constitution, the only military force in Hong Kong will still be mainland soldiers stationed in Hong Kong. There are paramilitary counter-terrorism forces such as the PTU (Police Tactical Unit) and the SDU (Special Duties Unit) that comprises the elites of the Hong Kong Police Force. Using mainly western weapons, i.e. MP5, AR15, MGS90, the original SDU members were trained by the SAS. Personnel are selected from the PTU, and the requirements/training are extremely rigorous. As a result, the SDU has never failed a single mission.
The red field is both a festive color among the Chinese and an allusion to the flag of China; at the center is a white stylized Hong Kong orchid (bauhinia blakeana) with five petals, each containing a star, symbolizing the "one country two systems" policy, wherein China will implement socialist rule while at the same time allow capitalism.